Monday, November 2nd, 2009

The Taxi Scenario

The Taxi Scenario
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I’ve uncovered a secret about working in design. At first glance, it may seem like another in a long line of posts moaning about clients. It is not. This is a simple observation, and I believe that it can change how you work—for the better.

Designers and clients

Talk with a designer for long enough, and the topic of clients will inevitably arise. Some will rave about how great theirs are, but most will (at one point or another) look perplexed and talk about the challenges they are facing. When booze is in the room, such emotions often make the discussion a little… umm… less constructive.

This doesn’t have as much to do with the people involved as it does with the construct that design services live within. Design is a somewhat blurry practice. Pricing structures vary widely, as does professionalism, and perspective on what a firm’s design services should constitute.

It also comes down to comfort. Design buyers are tasked with making a big decision when they select a firm, and are often investing a considerable sum. Those who make design purchases frequently, tend to know what to ask for. Those who don’t, struggle with how they should go about doing so.

I posit that this results in two distinct types of design buyers and demands.

Type 1: “Help me fix this problem.”

I’ll begin with the client all designers want to work for. These have a particular problem to solve and they need a professional to help them in this capacity. Perhaps the problem is that their customers don’t like the “feel” of their new product. Maybe they don’t know how to convert their site visitors into buyers. Or, it could be that they just want to understand how to employ a particular tool.

I don’t really need to talk about these sorts of clients. Although they can be demanding, it’s typically in a way that most of us appreciate. They need you to make something happen, and so long as you can afford the service/knowledge you’ve promised, all should go fine. Sure, there might be some stumbles, but those come with any collaboration. If you can’t make such a situation work, there’s likely a communication problem that needs to be addressed, and it may very well be on the designer’s side.

Type 2: “Press the buttons.”

The second kind of client is harder. We generally find them the toughest to work for, as they believe that all opinions related to design are equal. These clients ultimately want you to “shut-up and press the buttons.” They’ll convene committees and have long discussions about color selection or typography, regardless of their knowledge, or lack thereof.

With such groups, rational thought will be cast aside in favor of emotional decisions or politicking. Standard design conventions will be abandoned, and you’ll likely be asked to “jazz things up” even if doing so is completely inappropriate. Any competent designer will cringe in such situations, and not because they intend to be difficult or protective of their proposed solution. It simply feels “wrong” to craft things in a fashion that won’t benefit the client.

I call this the “taxi scenario.” Imagine hopping into a taxi and noting that you need to get to the airport. The driver would plot a course and start driving. Then envision waiting a few moments and asking him to drive in the opposite direction. Upon his explanation that this wouldn’t get you to the airport, you could respond, “you’re being difficult. Just do as I ask.” This would leave him with a difficult decision: follow the project directive, or be obedient.

The easy solution

Most reading this article, would simply (and sensibly) note that a designer should only elect to work the first type of client, as doing otherwise would seem counter-intuitive. While I’m inclined to agree with that logic, reality isn’t always so clear cut.

Creative companies generally experience an ebb and flow of work that sometimes necessitates taking on the latter form of client. Additionally, there are times when it’s hard to tell which type of client is which. Few will readily admit to being a “Type 2,” even if they are. This makes it hard to filter them out.

The fact of the matter is that sometimes you have to make the best of a bad situation; moreover, you can work with both of these groups effectively (and profitably). Allow me to explain.

The identity crisis

As noted, Type 1 clients are relatively easy. Do your job, don’t screw up, and if you do: apologize and fix said screw-up. Type 2 clients are also pretty easy, so long as they identify themselves as such, and accept the inherent limitations of that approach. If they simply want you to do “production,” and you accept the job, it’s easy. Do your job, give them what they ask for, bill for the project. Everyone’s happy.

The problem is with those who say they’re Type 1 clients, but in fact just want you to press the buttons and do as you’re told. This is the point of friction. Just like that taxi driver, you’re stuck with an impossible scenario. They’ve asked you to get them to a place, but are making decisions that prevent you from doing so. I have only one solution for working with this kind of client.

First, explain your logic. Discuss what they’ve asked for, and how their choices impede that from happening. If they’re truly Type 1s, they’ll acknowledge the paradox and make necessary adjustments. If they aren’t, you can’t fight them. There’s no point. If they’re Type 2s, you need to treat them as such, even if they claim not to be.

It will feel weird

Initially, just “doing what you’re told” will feel weird. Actually, it might even feel unethical as blindly following directions may result in them “missing their plane.” That’s just the reality of the situation. Except for in some lucky circumstances, it’s likely to happen, and there’s little you can do about it. They’ve paid for your time; it’s up to them whether they get a thinker or a drone. (Or: whether they get to the airport, or take the “scenic route.”)

In working with Type 2s, your only real option—after the initial discussion—is to do the job, collect the cash, and move on. The nice part is that once you resign yourself to doing so, you may find it to be quite profitable. You’ll find that it’s much easier to blindly carry out orders than make something work well.

This may sound somewhat futile or like I’m asking you to act unprofessionally, but it’s not intended so. It’s simple practicality. You can’t control others; you can only do what your clients will permit you to. If you’re working with a Type 2, I advise you to be polite, and save your energy—and counsel—for the Type 1s. Those are the ones who are actually asking for it.

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  3. There are times, Eric, when I believe that you're simply testing the waters with an emotional topic. This might be one of those times, I suppose, but I doubt it. Your position is drawn from experience, and I for one, having worked with Type 1 and Type 2 clients alike, appreciate the approach. It's common sense logic and and a realization that we all must face at one point or another in our professional careers. If you're not willing to accept the Type 2 position, you might consider a career change. With a few notable exceptions, nearly every designer is pressed to to understand the limitations in the client/designer relationship. It's part of the job. Now don't get me wrong; it's not about compromising your position or your value as a designer. It's about understanding that clients typically mean well, but rarely possess the ability to step back, to trust, and to facilitate the best internal process in receiving the most for their investment from you, the designer. I find that you can inform and guide, but you won't likely change a client's established habits and roles. Some clients are exceptional, many are not. Entrepreneurs (often, our clients) are wired to jump headlong into the middle of even the most miniscule design problems and their hired managers (often, our client contacts) are less willing to risk change and revert to devoting a significant portion of their time second-guessing the wishes of their bosses. Besides they reason; this stuff is fun, and they (like us) harbor their own opinions about type, color, and position. About "design". And don't we all? It's a tangled web that we find ourselves a part of. But it can be interesting, and often quite fulfilling if you can learn to strike a balance. I'm still trying.

  4. Thijs Visser says:

    Loved it.
    This article is closely related to your other article: "The customer is always right". Only this has some milder tone to it. That article slightly contradicts this one:

    From: "The customer is always right" :
    "Put simply, if we care at all about the welfare of our clients, it is our duty to tell them the truth, even if it means upsetting them, or losing their business. It is both responsible and ethical. When you start to say “no” to client requests which you believe to be misguided, it almost becomes hard to imagine doing it any other way."

    That contradicts with your advice on the type2 client. Or does the quote from "The customer is always right…" focus on type1 client?

  5. @Eric: I think we're all still trying. ;-)

    @ Thijs: I think you always have to begin by being direct with clients. Type 1s will likely appreciate this. Type 2s, however, won't want that feedback, no matter how accurate it may be.

    It's all about determining how to affect the best end result. Sometimes this will be a matter of keeping the client happy—even if they aren't left with the most effective design solution.

    It's a gray area, isn't it?

  6. Matt Crest says:

    Currently having a Type 2 client on my hands, I can appreciate this article. I would propose a simple amendment that I've found can either a) help turn a client towards becoming a Type 1 or b) give you peace of mind that you've tried your best.

    Upon learning of a client instructed direction that feels wrong for the predefined objectives, state the reasons why you feel so. If they ask about it again, restate your reasons with a bit more detail. If this fails after 2 or 3 rationalizations or attempts at steering the project down the right path, drop it and treat them as a Type 2.

    My current Type 2 client asked me for my opinion on their feedback and direction. After they asked the third time, I told them, "I'll say it one more time and then drop it, but I really feel this goes against what we defined as project objectives as well as the best direction for the company."

    They appreciated my honesty, but ultimately decided to continue down the path they wanted.

  7. Matt Crest says:


    This made it easier for me to be let go a bit and, as you stated, direct more of my creative focus and energy towards the Type 1 clients.

  8. I think that's what it all comes down to.

    If someone asks for your help, you should do your best to solve their problem. If they continually reject your input, it's not worth stressing over.

    Makes life a lot easier. Besides, it's not open-heart surgery. ;-)

  9. This may be easier for me to say as I'm not currently working freelance or in an agency, but I would imagine that, long term, the more successful studios & agencies are the ones which insist on a certain level of freedom — of course, with the client's approval. If you begin to "settle" on projects, on more than just the smaller details, then wouldn't it set a cycle of work which will eventually end in the studio's status as more of a production house than a creative agency? If the work you're showing to prospective clients is work where you simply executed the previous client's wishes, then future clients would get the same idea, and you'd be stuck in a cycle of Type 2s.

    I may be wrong in this, I'm simply opining, but it seems to be that the best, most widely regarded or most sought-after studios are the ones which work primarily with Type 1s who allow them the freedom for their experiences to shine through. The rest...?

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  11. Ken Reynolds says:

    The design industry seems to be built on experience, the more you have the easier things seem to get. I guess that goes for life as well. My point is this, when we all start out in the industry we are all inexperienced and finding our way, this seems to be the time when we get a lot of Type 2 clients.

    When you are starting out any client is a blessing, so you take as many jobs as you can.
    There is a danger that you expect Type 2 clients and lose your edge. There is a danger that you become the 'button pusher' and forget about the creativity.

    I guess this is how you gain experience. After time you will have a sink or swim moment and decide you are tired of being ignored and try to seek out more Type 1's. But work is work, and it's about striking the balance. The Type 2 jobs pay the bills and the Type 1 jobs make being a designer worthwhile.

    Designers are service providers, and it's up to the client which level of service they receive.

  12. Alex Magill says:

    Great article - and not the first time I've seen the design/taxi metaphor: Peter L Phillips uses it in a similar way in 'Creating the Perfect Design Brief' (a fantastic book for any designer).

    I have to agree with Stuart's point though - unless you want to become a production house you have to constantly evaluate your client and project-base and where they are taking you.

    Type 2s can be rewarding, financially and in terms of the relationships you can strike up, but if the bulk of your work is of this sort then you may have a hard time persuading people (and yourself) that you can produce creative, problem-solving work too.

  13. Architela says:

    As hard as this sounds, there are times you have to walk away. A client who forces you to work in a way that goes against your judgement could ultimately harm your reputation for producing good work. I guess you have to decide when the line is about to be crossed.

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  15. I had one of these recently.

    It got me wondering whether a client would be so quick to make the decisions if you told them "Yeah, sure I can do it, just don't tell anyone that I had anything to do with it. Now, which buttons would you like me to press?"

    Actually one of the best pieces of advice I heard about this was to get the client to think about how the project is going to achieve their business goals. It helps keep them focussed on the bigger picture rather than the finer details ("could you just move that a few millimeters to the left? OK, maybe up a bit...What about putting it in a red star with a drop shadow like I've seen in CorelDraw")

    OK, enough insults. And apologies for referring to our lovely clients as "them" ;)

  16. Naomi Niles says:

    Oh, I don't know. I'm torn on this one.

    I think for me, I only want to have Type 2 clients if I feel they have reasoning for their decisions. For example, I work with several people who are involved in marketing. They know enough to make their own decisions about what they want to do and live with the consequences. If they want to try something, it's often very reasonable.

    On the other hand, I've let go of some clients in the Type 2 category that just didn't get it. No matter what I said or had reasoning for, they were hell-bent on going in a bad direction.

    In those cases, I think it's easier to let them go and save the frustration. It might be easy to just do what they say and let it go, but I care too much about the quality of the work I'm putting out.

    I also don't know if working with too many of these type of clients is good for your long-term business growth. You end up putting out a lot of mediocre crap and losing out on opportunities to take on more challenging work.

    Why is it that everyone is a designer nowadays? I don't go to the auto mechanic and tell him how to fix my car.

  17. Grant says:

    When faced with the reality of a client you through to be a Type 1, actually operating as a Type 2, I agree that it's good on some level to resign yourself and finish the job.

    However, I think the idea that this can be profitable needs a caveat. In my experience, the Type 2 clients are most likely to be the ones to head outside of the initial scope of a project. If your pricing was based on the initial scope, you need some kind of trigger or set of conditions in your agreement with *any* client that make sure you stay profitable when wide scope changes happen. If you do this up front, there is a greater likelihood that these kinds of clients can be profitable.

    Of course, if you knew they were Type 2 from the beginning and took the job anyway, you hopefully have a price structure to account for this.

  18. Ivan Road says:

    Eric, I enjoy your posts, usually. But I think you're beginning to whine too much about unenlightened clients not appreciating your genius.

    If they aren't buying, perhaps you shouldn't consider them dolts for not 'getting' it. It could be that you're trying to sell something that you think is swell, but they couldn't give a damn about. You haven't made a good case for the value of it.

    Consider, too, that you, personally, are probably the consummate 'Type 2' customer for most of what YOU buy.

    Do you drive around with the plain-old factory carburetor in your car? I know a mechanic who would think you a brainless fool for driving around with such a compromisesd, mass-produced, cheap-as-we-can-make-it piece of crap. You simply don't get it.

    I'm guessing when you bought your last hot water heater, the plumber left your place mumbling about what a cheap-ass idiot you were for going with just the plain old crap that will be leaking in five years. "What a dolt. He just doesn't get it."

    Did you take the professional, well-considered, experienced advice of an expert for everything you bought last year? And would you buy something you didn't 'like' just because the 'expert' said it was right?

    I doubt it. I would bet you bought a load of stuff that the 'geniuses' would consider tripe.

    If the clients aren't buying your stuff, maybe you're selling the wrong stuff, or selling to the wrong people.

    It's arrogant to consider them clueless jerks.

    Did you buy

  19. Hi Ivan,

    I'm glad that you like my posts and I'm sorry that you felt this one too “whiny” in nature. Perhaps I've written this post poorly, and I should have done a better job; or, you've misread it. Either way, I'll take a moment to clarify.

    This post was informed by a couple of distinct experiences we've had over the past few months. One is on the extreme Type 1 end of things, and one is a Type 2 (both have been with us for many years). What’s notable is the correlation between the value we seem to afford, and how these different groups engage when they call us. This led me to look at other groups we've worked with. I was surprised to find that most quite clearly fell into one camp or the other.

    For a long time we fought Type 2s, believing that their overarching project objectives should take precedence over politicking or personal preferences. In most circumstances we found doing so to be rather futile. Some might be swayed, but those ones were in the minority. Ultimately, it came down to what they really perceived the process to be about.

    What I've tried to convey here--albeit perhaps poorly--is that there's little point to feeling badly or complaining about those I've classified as "Type 2s." My suggestion is that at a certain point, it's wise to simply identify what they're really looking for and act accordingly.

    And as for considering them "clueless jerks"? Those are your words--not mine. (Although yours are more colorful, I'd prefer to choose my own language, thanks.) Even in the situations we've found most challenging, the people have generally been nice. If we find it difficult to work with a particular client, I'd hardly think that reflected on their character or general decency.



  20. Markko says:

    @Ivan: You have a good point there. Putting yourself in client's position gives you totally different perspective. Actually, I have tried it now for a year or so and it works well! Experts always recommend you more expensive products, that's for sure. But they work and you feel better after the purchase. What is different is that you have to do some home work and you have to plan your spending. So when I go to the expert, I already have a clear understanding of my needs and I am prepared to get best results.

    The problem with clients is that many people treat design as "shopping". They don't plan, they act on emotion. They hate the cost and they like to choose even if it makes the decision harder to make.

  21. yani says:

    I seem to work only with type 2s :(

  22. Jon says:

    Nice. I needed this today.

  23. yael miller says:

    The hardest ones are Type 2's that say they're Type 1's. You know, the kind that says, "You're the expert. I trust you." when clearly they don't.

    And usually they are also in a rush, are still making changes close to press time and are unusually charming.

    These types can be a curse for those designers who have a hard time saying, "no", when they come knocking far enough down the line that you've already forgotten how tough they were to work with.

  24. I am a web programmer/designer. I have found that most clients are a combination of Type 1 and Type 2 -- They will grant me design freedom for all the parts they don't understand (and even some parts they do but will defer to my professional judgment), but will also request specific visual things they expect to see. Most times these requests are within reason, or I can convince them to look at it differently and accept an alternative but equal approach insofar as satisfying their request.

    I have had also had some clients that were close to pure Type 2s. I honestly don't have a problem with these type of clients as long as their requests are "within design reason" and they aren't wishy-washy. In other words, they know what they want and what they want isn't whacked. :)

    Now, pure type 2 sites also happen to be the sites I feel less proud of, since they have a tendency to work against what I think of as optimal design. I won't be showing these sites off (that much).

    Of course, there are also the scattered type 2 clients who try to make me do something consistently unreasonable, or something that never seems to settle on a set approach. As doing these projects would tend to unravel my reputation, I generally don't take these projects, or continue them once I realize they are going in a downward spiral. I already have work I'm not proud of from years ago when I was green -- I don't want some of that same kind of work attached me at my current stage of considerably more advanced abilities. It's not worth the money I might make from them.

  25. Karthik says:


    Thanks once again for such a simple yet an amazing article rooted in reality. I couldn't have read this article at a more appropriate time than now. In the last few weeks, I have constantly questioned my dealings with the projects and the clients that I work for. A few days back, I had come to the same conclusion that you have in your article and I started following it. I was much more relaxed than before. It is an amazing coincidence that you have to outline the precise problem in your article and give a solution that's similar to mine. The only difference is you have given names - Type 1 and Type 2 (love it). Thanks for that too.

    Keep these articles coming.

    All the best.

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